Filmmaker Julie Taymor has never operated within conventional parameters, but then again, neither has her latest cinematic subject, feminist icon and political firebrand Gloria Steinem. Taymor, who has only dipped into biopics once before, with the similarly creative “Frida,” knows that life doesn’t move in a straight line, which could have scared her off from adapting Steinem’s road-trip autobiography. But the road to becoming “Gloria Steinem” was winding, and the best parts of the wonderfully inventive “The Glorias” are when Taymor takes her various eponymous Glorias on some artful detours. Steinem, fortunately, has many of them to offer.
Based on Steinem’s bestselling 2015 book “My Life on the Road,” and adapted by Taymor and first-time scribe Sarah Ruhl, the film imagines four different Glorias (played mostly by Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander), following Steinem through some of her most important travels (mostly on the road, all of them through her extraordinary life). The film’s various Glorias appear in conversation with each other, both literal and figurative, as they travel through “The Glorias” in a large Greyhound bus — again, both literally and figuratively.
A straight line could be plotted through the feature which, despite its imaginative storytelling structure, still manages to hit all of the big moments in Steinem’s life. While they bend over and switch back on each other — one moment, Vikander’s Gloria is eating an ice-cream sundae to celebrate walking out on a sexist, predatory editor, the next, she’s played by pint-sized Ryan Kiera Armstrong, eating Breyers out of the box with her family — Taymor and editor Sabine Hoffman’s assemblage is easy to follow and emotionally astute.
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While she was a kid, the Steinems were practiced travelers — Gloria’s father, Leo (warmly played by Timothy Hutton), lived by a maxim he shares early in the film: “Traveling’s the best education.” Gloria never seemed able (or willing) to kick the bug. “The Glorias” follows Vikander back on the road both alone (through India after her graduation from Smith College) and occasionally with her father, with flashbacks to her rooted tween years (then played by Lulu Wilson), interspersed into the lead-up to the most well-known portions of her professional life.
Vikander’s performance is arguably the meatiest, as she portrays Steinem through her early journalism career (including a sequence following her research for her turning-point article about going undercover as a Playboy Bunny) and turn towards organization and activism. It’s Moore, however, who gets to dig into the creation of Ms. Magazine and the Women’s Liberation Rally, pulling Steinem through decades of her life before the real Gloria Steinem takes over at the film’s conclusion. Even when the various Glorias are talking to each other, in actual tension with all of the others, its Moore’s eldest Gloria to whom all of the others defer, as each of them move toward becoming her, the person she always was.
Psychedelic touches and feverish fantasies don’t always land, sometimes even both working and not working within relatively short amounts of time; a sequence in which all of the Glorias sweep up an artless male interviewer into a “Wizard of Oz”-styled storm is somehow both brilliant and silly. Other similarly effects-laden sequences look unfinished and rushed (before the film’s Sundance premiere, Taymor said the film was just finished a week ago).
And yet the rare moments when Taymor adheres to traditional biopic tropes are still more out of place, like when 20-something Gloria finds her signature aviator glasses and starts sporting them even though (or because of) the fact that they “hide her pretty face.” It’s an origin story for an infamous accessory, and while the reasoning behind Gloria’s choice of eyewear is compelling, the execution hits a false note.
Steinem’s understanding and respect of intersectionality played a major part in her evolution as a leader, and the film is stuffed with appearances by a cross-section of other feminist luminaries who have been important to Steinem, and the women’s movement, over the years. The supporting cast alone could outfit 10 other biopics, including brilliant turns by Bette Midler as Bella Abzug, Janelle Monae as Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Kimberly Guerrero as Wilma Mankiller, and scene-stealing work by Lorraine Toussaint as the wonderfully outrageous Flo Kennedy.
Steinem’s affection for nonviolence and predisposition to listening to others remain inspirational, but Taymor never attempts to saint her; at one point, a rattled Moore freaks out on a racist cab driver in a scene that both galvanizes and humanizes her. Despite a near-two-and-a-half-hour running time, moments like that prove how much more of Steinem there still is to show and appreciate, and how Taymor has cleverly hacked through a rich world and life to pull out enough profound truths to remind us all of both her — and Steinem’s — unstoppable voice.
“The Glorias” debuted in the Premieres section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.